"Clicker training is easy," said the woman in the puppy class. "It's growing a third hand that is hard!" Like many beginning clicker trainers, she's discovered that clicker training is as much a mechanical skill as it is a training method. (Many people also say it's a way of life, a philosophy, and the secret to saving the world, but let's not go overboard.) Rather than grafting a new limb, the technique of tethering is gaining followers.
Tethering simply means attaching your leash, and therefore your dog, to your waist. When learning to watch your dog, click at the correct moment, and quickly give a treat to your dog, it can be difficult to also hold a leash. Does the leash go in the same hand as the clicker? How do you hold both the clicker and the leash when you need two hands to get the treat out of your bait bag? Attaching the leash to your waist relieves you of having to hold it, along with everything else.
Watch, don't yank
Too often, through inexperience or because they are overcoming habits built through traditional training, a handler relies on a leash to control the dog. In those learning moments, when we move habitually rather than purposefully, a beginner may inadvertently yank a leash rather than click and reinforce a desired behavior. Attaching the leash to your waist, rather than holding it, can prevent these accidental relapses. If you are working with a large or powerful dog, a special hands-free leash with straps that go around your shoulders will prevent the leash being yanked off your waist, and allow you to steady yourself against any sudden jumping or running.
Teachers of clicker training classes remark that when their student handlers wear a hands-free leash, their focus seems to switch from what the leash is doing to what their dog is doing. This change in focus is the first step in learning the close observational skills that lie at the heart of successful clicker training.
Any behavior that can be observed can be clicked and reinforced. A paw raise, an ear twitch, a lick of the lips, or a miniscule muscle movement can be captured with a click, established as a behavior and put on cue just as a jump through a hoop or a run out to bring in a herd of sheep can be. Capturing these small spontaneous behaviors relies on being on the spot when they happen. Keeping your dog tethered by your side for extended periods, in or out of the house, builds in lots opportunities in your day for capturing a behavior, no matter how small.
Ensuring opportunities to capture—and reinforce—emotions
This use of tethering is especially helpful when clicking and reinforcing emotions—yes, even emotions can be captured, established, and put on cue. A new dog or puppy in a houseful of rambunctious children must learn that the hullabaloo of young humans is fun rather than frightening. A solid family dog cannot be rattled by any amount of loud and surprising events. Keeping a young dog tethered to an adult in the house while the children are playing is an ideal way to click and reinforce calm responses to the normal (and even extraordinary) activity of children. A child leaps off the couch with shrieking "Cowabunga," and the dog flicks its ears forward rather than cringing backward? If the dog is by your side at that unexpected moment, you can click and reinforce this positive reaction, and build on it until the dog equates hijinks with rewards. In a multiple-dog household, too, tethering can provide more opportunities to reinforce calm interactions and reduce unsupervised opportunities for aggression.
Housetraining made easy
Consistency and attentiveness are the key to effective and speedy housetraining. The more a puppy is scooped up and put out at the first sign of readiness to relieve itself, the quicker it will learn to go outside, and outside only. Crate training is a highly effective way of housetraining a puppy, therefore, as most dogs will wait until they are out of their crate to relieve themselves. Adding tethering to the process increases that effectiveness because it ensures that you are able to keep an eye on the puppy at all times for signs of readiness, even when you are occupied with other things.
And that beginning clicker trainer who needed a third hand? She soon had her dog strolling quietly beside her on a loose leash, rather than hauling her to home base, thanks to her hands-free leash. By ignoring the leash and focusing only on whether her dog was in heel position, shoulder next to her left knee, she could click and reinforce frequently while walking around the perimeter of her class. She could even chew gum at the same time.